OT: Our Town
A ten year-old documentary about a group of high school kids from Compton, California producing a (then) 64 year-old play set in rural New Hampshire some twenty years prior to that date, today’s movie, OT: Our Town is about cultural differences forged by time place and ethnicity in America, but more than that it’s about what we all have in common.
The film follows a group of students at Compton’s Dominguez High School, an racially divided inner city school, with some fantastic athletic programs, but little else going for it. At the films opening we learn that while the school has no auditorium and hasn’t produced a student play in over twenty years, it has produced race riots with such frequency that students half-joke that riots are part of the typical cycle of school year events along with prom and graduation. In spite of this, two teachers have decided to organize a student production of Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s classic play about everyday life in rural New England just after the turn of the last century. Their goal is to create an opportunity and outlet for students beyond the school’s athletic programs. In other words, it’s the same goal of every other high school drama program in America. Despite no precedent in memory, the teachers assemble an eclectic group of students and begin their production.
Throughout the film we are introduced to the students in the play, and explore their home lives. This is interspersed with their rehearsals, along with footage from the 1977 television production of the play. The film presents a moving portrait of life in Compton, but while I was interested how their lives were so different from what I knew, I was also intrigued by the similarities that were exposed, both to the high school productions I was involved in, and to the lives of the people of Grovers Corner, NH. I suppose a lot of this credit should go to Wilder, Our Town’s themes of life, love and death are timeless, and presented with a fine balance of humor and tragedy. I’d imagine that every viewer is going to have their own reaction, but as someone who remembers long nights of rehearsals, hoping that all the people with big parts showed up on time, and struggling to memorize dialogue, I was drawn in. I also liked the persistent but not over-bearing theme by which the apathy towards drama was compared to the school’s obsession with sports. (In one memorable scene, the filmmaker briefly interviews the star of Dominguez High’s National Championship basketball team, Tyson Chandler, and attitude his towards the production is as amusing as it is unsurprising.)
I was surprised by this film, I expected it to be interesting, but I didn’t expect it to be moving. By half-way through the film, I really cared about the kids and their little play, I wanted it to do well. I expected the film’s message to be a head-shaking look at the plight of America’s inner cities, instead it was an uplifting story of achievement and unity. There are a few minor issues that I had. The film was clearly produced on essentially no budget, and it shows. The footage looks like it was shot on consumer-grade video equipment, with white balance and contrast prevalent throughout. That said it’s well paced and consistently interesting. This is a very good movie, its definitely worth seeing.